The following essay, written shortly after the collapse of the Twin Towers, has been this writer's most-read piece of work.
Written on September 14, 2001, it was the cry of my heart as the mother of a United States Marine, a son who had been called to alert in response to the attacks on our country.
Each year on September 11, I re-read this essay. And remember ...
I wasn't terribly happy the day my 17-year-old son told me that he wanted to join the United States Marine Corps.
Ryan was a boy from a professional family with many educational options--and he wanted to join the armed forces?
I signed the forms permitting him to enlist, but I did so with a heavy heart, fearing he was throwing his future away.
When my son graduated from high school, his gown draped with ribbons for academic and music honors, I envied the proud parents all around me. The program in my hands reflected my feelings. Page after page extolled the college choices of hundreds of graduates--yet there wasn't a single acknowledgment of Ryan or those of his classmates who had chosen to enter military service. Joining the Marine Corps seemed a step backward for my intelligent and talented son.
Boy, was I ever wrong!
I began to glimpse the truth early in my son's military career. Ryan told me of a talk he'd had with his drill instructor during boot camp. The subject was respect. "When I speak," the DI said, "you stand at attention and say 'Yes, sir!' But I've only been tucking you in at night for about six weeks. How do you treat your mother, who's been doing this your whole life? Do you treat her with respect? Do you call her 'Ma'am'?"
I was quick to assure my son that calling me "Ma'am" was completely unnecessary, but a tiny quiet part of my brain began to glow. How long had it been since I had seen or heard public praise of motherhood? As editor of OrganizedHome.Com, I could count on one or two e-mails a week objecting to this site's focus on home life, and complaining "I thought we were past all that!" Yet the Marine Corps acted as if motherhood mattered, as if respect mattered, as if even a "good kid" like my son still had a lot to learn about honor and duty and character.
As the months passed, I saw more and more changes in my child. "I used to have to force myself to do my homework in high school," Ryan told me, "but now, I have self-discipline!" When he completed his military occupational specialty school, the first thing he did was visit me, his mother--before he saw his girlfriend, before he saw his former classmates. During that visit, I could see he was still the boy I knew, but he had also become a man, strong and confident, calm and balanced. He had grown inside far more than he had on the outside.
A few weeks later, I received a beautiful letter from the commandant of his training school. Ryan had graduated first in his class, the commandant wrote, adding that his achievement was "possible only because of the parental foundation you have lain; for this, we render the ultimate salute."
The Marine Corps was thanking me? Holding this letter, the last remnants of resistance to a son in military service crumbled away. The Yuppie parent capitulated and in her place stood a stand-tall, gung-ho Marine Mom.
In the past few days, this Marine Mom has had good reason to think about my child, my home and my country. Our future may soon lie in the hands of hundreds of thousands of young people just like my son, together with the military leaders who have taught and transmitted the values that have so enriched my child.
Corporal Ryan Swain, USMC, is just 20 years old.
But Corporal Ryan Swain, USMC, is a man of honor and courage. A man who is pledged to lay down his life for his home, his country. Together with young men and women from all parts of the United States of America, he is ready to defend us and our way of life.
As his mother, I can't help but think about the possibility that my child could be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
I am not afraid. But I do have something to say.
In the past few days, many have asked that I speak out as editor of OrganizedHome.Com. E-mails urge me to publicize blood drives and fundraisers and memorials. All are worthy efforts, all will make a difference--but none of these pleas have said quite what I want to say.
As a Marine Mom, I would ask, "Will we be worthy?" Will the weeks to come see a flurry of waving flags--but no real changes of heart? Will we dissipate our shock and grief and horror with symbolic acts, or will we use these emotions to fuel new commitment, new idealism, new devotion to the values that have built our nation?
What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Go home and invest ourselves in the lives of our children, our spouses, and our neighbors. Build strong homes and we will build a strong nation. Teach children the virtues of honor and discipline and self-sacrifice. Embrace family, friends and neighbors in a spirit of tolerance and respect, and seek out those who are alone. Be unashamed of standing for the values that my son and his fellow service members have pledged to defend with their lives.
What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Bring a new sense of dedication and service to our homes, schools, churches and communities. Give time and money and talents to make better lives for those around us. If a need is there, meet it. Support charities. Show, by our own sacrifice, that we value the sacrifices which may be asked of our service men and women in the coming months.
What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Prove, by civic participation, that our system of government remains strong and vibrant and relevant to a new century. Vote. Run for office. Speak out on issues. Communicate with our representatives. Fly the flag proudly, and exercise those freedoms of speech and religion that have been hard-bought throughout our history by men and women just like my son.
What can we do for our country at this time of trial? It is not the editor of OrganizedHome.Com who answers, but the mother of a Marine who speaks. We can be that nation to which my son has pledged his life's blood.
He believes. Can we do less?